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March 22, 2024

Implications for Modern Warfighting Concepts: What the US Army Can Learn from Past Conflicts

Richard D. Butler

These four historic vignettes provide context and lessons learned for the US Army as it returns to peer conflict. Although history does not account for the cyber and space domains, the leaders involved in the highlighted conflicts dealt with the reintroduction of maneuver warfare tied to modern fires from land, sea, and air. Peer-level conflict also compelled governments to work intensely in the information space to steel their societies and to influence allies, partners, and adversaries. Using historical reference material and insights from historians and other experts, this essay will help the US Army and the wider community of interest relearn peer rival conflict to support deterrence and prepare for the next large-scale war.

Defense of the Philippines, 1899–1942

The US Army faced a new, long-term challenge in the Philippines following the seizure of Manila in 1898. Based on Washington’s policy, the US Army and the US Navy coordinated a basic, long-term strategy that induced the Army to pacify the Filipinos and support the fortification of Luzon as an expeditionary staging area for the Navy. Four significant events shaped the region militarily over the next 20 years. The first event was the Russians’ twofold defeat in 1905 at the hands of the Japanese. The second was the 1907 Japanese invasion scare, which heightened the long-term belief that the United States and Japan would go to war in the Pacific. The third was the Navy’s shift from coal- to oil-fired boilers, which eliminated the necessity of maintaining a coaling station in the Philippines. The final event was the post–World War I agreement that gave the Japanese possession of Germany’s mandate islands in the northern, western, and northwestern Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands, Mariana Islands, and Palau Islands). By 1920, the Army’s mission to defend the archipelago was outdated and untenable.1

Politically, the Army was hamstrung by a public that neither desired a large standing American land force nor wanted to fund US-backed Filipino efforts to create an indigenous force in the Philippines. Despite these factors, the Army persisted in creating operational-level plans, insisting on immediate reinforcement. In 1931, Army and Navy wargamers realized immediate reinforcement of the Philippines was infeasible.2 The US Army War College and the US Naval War College—acting as service think tanks and wargamers and contributing as adjuncts of the service planning staffs—clearly understood the dilemma from the standpoint of War Plan Orange and the subsequent Rainbow Plans, which became increasingly important as war approached. As the 1930s wore on, the Joint Board adopted the Navy’s and Army’s informed posture: The US military would defend the Hawaii-Panama-Alaska line.3

The field commanders in the Philippines also recognized the dire situation and planned as best they could to fight a delaying action. From an Army standpoint, these forlorn efforts included routinely using unobtainable mobility figures early in the war and assuming the Navy would fight through in time to relieve the forces holding out on Luzon. General Douglas MacArthur even changed the plans to induce resourcing and support as he sought to build defensive resiliency in the Philippines. This change, however, gained little traction because fortifying the Philippines was not high on the political-military agenda.4

At the end of 40 years of strategy and planning, the Army in the Pacific was in an isolated position due to Washington’s strategic shortsightedness and several other factors. Time was increasingly on Tokyo’s side due to the modernization of its military power and the benefits of being in the winning coalition in World War I. Until December 1941, Washington continued to believe its economic power and available forces in the Pacific were sufficient to deter Japanese military aggression against US possessions. Psychologically, Americans believed Asian militaries were not equal to their Western counterparts. Most importantly, the political, strategic, and operational levels of the civilian-military relationships never identified a suitable solution for this infeasible scenario. Implementing national policy toward the Philippines regarding the transition and status of the Philippines and its military could have made a profound difference in deterrence and early conflict. Culpability also resides with the military departments that should have reconciled the gap between strategy, plans, and resources. These actions would not have staved off World War II, but they would have kept more than 18,000 American soldiers and the Filipino Army fighting on better terms early in the war.5 The isolation of American forces in the Pacific is a hard lesson the US military should never be forced to relearn.

The Korean War, 1950

In early 1950, Washington did not consider the defense of South Korea vital to the United States or its free-world allies.6 Sensing an opportunity, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin acquiesced to Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’s request to unify the peninsula by force. During the first few weeks of the conflict, MacArthur, as the theater commander, rapidly sought and obtained political buy-in to defend Korea. President Harry S. Truman immediately authorized the use of US Air Force assets based in Japan, changed the operational control of the US Seventh Fleet to MacArthur’s Far East Command, and began ammunition resupply to the Republic of Korea Army. Politically, Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall signaled support requirements to allies and partners and engaged the UN in San Francisco.7

Knowing he needed an operationally oriented mission command on the Korean Peninsula, MacArthur established the Advance Command and Liaison Group in Korea, subsuming the remnants of the American advisory group that was evacuating Seoul.8 MacArthur also intuitively knew the new command would need American ground forces rapidly, so he requested them from Washington. Approval drove the hasty deployment of ill-prepared occupation forces in Japan that consisted of four understrength divisions and a limited number of available organic service-support troops. Senior-leader dialogue also obtained early decisions to employ the Pacific-based marine regimental combat team, and Far East Command worked quickly to introduce and integrate allied troops and headquarters as they became available and could be flowed into Korea.9

The US military emphasized growing a robust mission command structure for the war fight and sustainment. Eighth Army Headquarters was dispatched to the Korean Peninsula, and the Army passed its communication-zone duties to the newly established Japan Logistical Command. The Army also established Pusan Logistical Command to handle the significant sustainment mission required to build and maintain combat power on the peninsula. Japan Logistical Command reported to Far East Command, and Pusan Logistical Command reported to Eighth Army.10 Due to the unanticipated nature of the war and the austere conditions in Korea, the early months of the war focused on the deployment of service-support personnel to set the theater.11

The need for added means to fight became apparent as the North Koreans continued to seize the initiative. This requirement prompted presidential and congressional action to extend enlistments, conduct an expansion call-up of the reserves, and extend the draft. The Army and the US Marine Corps also established worldwide sustainment operations to assemble the required personnel and equipment. Within Far East Command’s area of responsibility, the US military had already authorized limited increases in personnel and equipment readiness for combat, including forced-entry operations, which MacArthur began in mid-1949 with the limited resources at his disposal.12 The United States also diligently worked to reconstitute the Republic of Korea’s decimated infantry divisions, which would later perform admirably for their young nation. American manpower shortages also forced the integration of Korean servicemembers into the American ranks to prepare for the Inch’ŏn landing.13 The Korean Augmentation to the US Army remains important to the alliance today. The Navy also enlisted Japanese merchants and merchantmen to support rear-area logistics and combat-landing operations.14 These examples represent two important coalition contributions to the US-led war effort.

MacArthur always envisioned the need to conduct an amphibious landing to cut the enemy’s lines of communication and seize the initiative from the Korean People’s Army. Given the rapid advance of the enemy and the complete breakdown of the Republic of Korea Army, MacArthur reassessed the feasibility of this plan. Through extensive coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States met its additional Army and Marine Corps division requirements without accepting unnecessary global risk, particularly in Europe. This coordination mitigated operational risk significantly, allowing Far East Command to focus on building up the X Corps in Japan while keeping enough force structure to defend the Pusan perimeter, break out rapidly, and link up with the landing forces in the vicinity of Seoul after the Inch’ŏn landing had broken the will of the enemy.

After the US military had sorted the feasibility and associated risk for the Inch’ŏn landing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff remained concerned about the landing location due to the tides and terrain. MacArthur was resolute about how he chose to apply his means: He assumed the risk knowing that not only was there concern in Washington, but also concerns about the landing site voiced by Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, the Navy commander for the operation, and Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., Fleet Marine Forces Pacific commander. The discussion of approaches with the Joint Chiefs of Staff lasted until the morning of the invasion. One of MacArthur’s staff hand-delivered the general’s last communication to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the day of the landing, showing MacArthur’s commitment to the mission. The Joint Chiefs of Staff simply replied that they approved the plan and had informed the president.15

Although the US military was not fighting against a peer, this case shows how a forward-deployed Joint Force can create dilemmas, extend the conflict in time and space, and create multiple convergence points. Early in the conflict, time was on the enemy’s side. The Korean People’s Army controlled the operational tempo and nearly achieved victory. External friendly forces were not immediately available to counter the initial attacks. Only rapid decisions at the strategic and national policy level created the strategic maneuver, which enabled swift mobilization, the deployment of resources, and authorities to seize the initiative.

Economic Warfare in World War I, 1900–16

In 2012, British economist and historian Nicholas A. Lambert wrote Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War. The book details the Royal Navy’s efforts to design and implement a blockade campaign for the anticipated war between the United Kingdom and Germany and points out the effort’s efficacy and the challenges it entailed. The British government, navy, and army were never completely aligned with the policy. Additionally, bureaucrats and experts struggled to implement the policy due to the complexity of the global economy and business leaders’ (including British business leaders’) proclivity for making a profit. Implementation challenges included difficulty identifying the goods that should be considered war material and second-destination shipping, and other means to evade the blockade. The United Kingdom also lacked whole-of-government resources for managing and implementing the blockade across the country’s ministries. Its military struggled to meet high-priority requirements for the British Army in Europe and Gallipoli. Other nations also challenged the global application of the blockade by making enforcement decisions to manage their economies and domestic expectations. This scenario was particularly true of the United States, whose burgeoning economy reaped profits from trade with the warring parties.16 Despite repeated efforts between the Admiralty and other elements of the British government to revise and align the protocols for enforcement as well as to seek support from Washington, forcing the Germans to capitulate based solely on economic warfare proved impossible.

The lessons here are quite interesting. The first lesson: economic warfare does contribute to an overall whole-of-nation effort and governments and societies will endure much to win if they believe the fight is worth the hardship. The second lesson: implementing economic measures to the maximum extent practicable requires great forethought, collaboration, international cooperation, and persistence for success. A final lesson: sharing and understanding service perspectives is important. The British Army and Royal Navy had to collaborate so the United Kingdom could set strategy, implement policy, and align resources across the British government.

Prelude to Operation Overlord, 1940–44

As noted in the first vignette, the Rainbow planning efforts identified the infeasibility of the United States’ position in the Pacific. These plans, however, also began to align the political and military ends of the “Germany-first” policy once war came. This notion solidified during the American-British Conversations-1 conference as the central tenet of the Allied military strategy following the Dunkirk evacuation, the Battle of Britain, and the Soviet entry into the war. The Germany-first policy also remained central after the Japanese attacks on American forces in the Pacific. As American planners began to envision the long campaign ahead, they looked deeply into the mobilization effort and integrated operational steps required to defeat Germany. The Victory Program, promulgated by the General Headquarters in Washington, identified the center of gravity as defeating the German Army and seizing German terrain. To achieve this victory, the Army envisioned a campaign to control the sea lines of communication, build up forces in the United Kingdom, reduce Germany’s strategic capability, conduct forced-entry operations in France, and then strike at the heart of Germany. Militarily, the plan was direct and efficient.

Varying interests among the Allies, however, dictated a much less direct route. Throughout the three years of planning that culminated in the Normandy Invasion, Prime Minister Winston Churchill continuously articulated the need to conduct operations in the Mediterranean Basin. British motivations included the desire to maintain lines of communications and resource management with the United Kingdom’s colonial possessions in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—during the war and following its end. The British were also concerned with communist expansion into Central and Southern Europe and America’s readiness to fight.17

Premier Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov pushed aggressively for opening a second front to relieve the pressure on the Soviet armies in the East. Stalin and Molotov went so far as to tell Churchill they might be willing to sue for a separate peace. A strong national desire to seek retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor also shaped the American stance. This motive led military leaders in the Pacific and Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, to push repeatedly for more resources in that hemisphere. Additionally, American senior leaders knew the Army was green and needed experience before invading Fortress Europe.

The result was repeated cooperation and compromise at the policy-strategy interface, informed by the availability of military resources. Given resource scarcity, the only initial viable option for opening a second front was entry into Northern Africa (Operation Torch). The decision to execute the operation, coupled with decisions to divert additional resources to the Pacific War following the Battle of Midway to support preparations for the campaigns in the Solomon and Aleutian Islands and to enter the lend-lease agreement with Russia, ultimately sapped the buildup in the United Kingdom (Operation Bolero) that would be required to execute forced-entry operations into continental Europe.

Ultimately, Operation Torch increased the feasibility of the Normandy Invasion (Operation Overlord) by ensuring American military leaders and troops were battle-tested. Operation Torch provided insight into who should command Operation Overlord and how the Army should arrange its command relationships. Operation Torch also provided valuable lessons for training and sustaining units.18 Perhaps most importantly, the operation kept the alliance solvent, allowed more time for American society to mobilize completely, and created the strategic narrative that the Axis powers were doomed to failure. Within the military, Marshall captured the importance of the weighty strategic decisions being made by politicians when he stated he had learned the importance of politicians doing something in the war every year.19

These same factors played out again in 1943 and 1944. Political necessity continued to drive planning hampered by feasibility limitations. From the time standpoint, political requirements demanded action, even if the action was not ideal. The Allies needed to press the Axis powers on multiple fronts to change the cumulative momentum of the war. The availability of landing craft and seasoned American commanders and servicemembers drove how many major operations could be conducted each year. At the political level, the Army created room for strategic maneuver to accommodate the political needs of major Allied countries to maintain the coalition. This strategy meant keeping the second front in Europe moving through Italy, accelerating operations in the Pacific, and postponing the invasion of France until the summer of 1944.

Synthesizing the Lessons

Applying the lessons outlined above will be difficult. The United States has not been in a peer conflict in many decades. When peer adversaries transition to conflict over perceived vital interests, the war will likely not be short, particularly if the adversaries do not share a common land border. This prolonged warfare will require Army concepts and plans that are durable and expandable. The nature of conflict endures as a test of wills, inducing national pride and actions that may have been considered unnecessary before the start of the conflict. This fervor means quick wins will be less likely if both sides meet deterrence requirements. Nations fight peer conflicts in all domains, and multidomain conflict means the Joint Force must employ all options in all domains by all services. The more vital the interest to both sides, the more likely major campaigns will occur in the land domain. Even with the deterrent potential of the cyber domain, deterrence will require options that involve ground campaigns. Allies and partners matter, especially because the American military fights away games. Coalition interests, capabilities, and ideas have substance. Conflict creates opportunities to change relationships. Thus, Army plans and capabilities must be flexible, adaptive, and mindful of the post-conflict international system.



Richard D. Butler

Colonel Richard D. Butler, US Army, is the director of the China Landpower Studies Center at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.




  1. Brian McAllister Linn, Guardians of Empire: The US Army and the Pacific, 1902–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 79–114. Return to text.
  2. Maurice Matloff and Edwin M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare 1941–1942 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1980), 2-3, https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/sp1941-42/chapter1.htm. Return to text.
  3. Henry G. Gole, The Road to Rainbow: Army Planning for Global War, 1934–1940 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 35–36, 87–89, 99. Return to text.
  4. Louis Morton, “The Decision to Withdraw to Bataan” in Command Decisions (Center for Military History, 2000), 155–58, https://history.army.mil/books/70-7_06.htm. Return to text.
  5. Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1993), 49. Return to text.
  6. James Schnabel, Policy and Direction the First Year (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History), 1992, 50–51. Return to text.
  7. Schnabel, Policy and Direction, 66–70. Return to text.
  8. Schnabel, Policy and Direction, 71–72. Return to text.
  9. Jeffery Grey, The Commonwealth Armies and the Korean War: An Alliance Study (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press), 1988, 31–46. Return to text.
  10. Richard B. Black, William Arthur Taylor, and William Neilson, An Evaluation of Service Support in the Korean War (Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Operations Research Office, 1951), 1–4. Return to text.
  11. William J. Flanagan, Korean War Logistics: The First One Hundred Days (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, 1985), 1–13. Return to text.
  12. Schnabel, Policy and Direction, 55–60. Return to text.
  13. Paul M. Edwards, The Inchon Landing, Korea, 1950: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), XXIV. Return to text.
  14. James A. Field Jr., “Into the Perimeter,” in History of United States Naval Operations: Korea (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command), 1962. Return to text.
  15. Roy E. Appelman, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History), 1992, 492–95. Return to text.
  16. Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012). Return to text.
  17. Warren Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 109–35. Return to text.
  18. Jane Penrose, D-Day Companion: Leading Historians Explore History’s Greatest Amphibious Assault (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2009), 43–46. Return to text.
  19. Mark Stoler, The Politics of the Second Front: American Military Planning and Diplomacy in Coalition Warfare, 1941–1943 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1977), 58. Return to text.


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